A Lesson in Acceptance

“Jesus Murray why can’t you be normal!” I hissed. My neighbor had just popped by to drop something off, and Murray wouldn’t stop barking.

A normal dog. What does that mean anyway?

A dog that doesn’t bark incessantly when guests are in the house? Who doesn’t freak out every time I get ready to leave or shakes in terror when we get into the car?

No, Murray’s definitely not a normal dog. He is a scared, anxious and nervous dog. One who is fearful of noise, separation, travel, visitors and anything unfamiliar. Over the years, I’ve grown frustrated with the manifestations of this anxiety. And worried too because I want so badly for him to be happy and healthy. This month, I set off to fix the barking problem through positive reinforcement, but I wasn’t successful. Not even close.

I was starting to lose hope when I stumbled on something that made me question my approach.

The Problem With the Solution

It came in the form of a story about a small town in Belgium that has a very unique way of treating mental illness.

I learned about Geel (pronounced Hale) on the excellent Invisiblia podcast in an episode called The Problem With the Solution. In Geel, “families… board people – strangers – with severe mental illnesses in their homes, sometimes for decades. And it works, because they are not looking to cure them.” The mentally ill learn to cope with their condition and, for the most part, go on to live a life of contentment and normalcy.

Host families, contrary to what one would think, don’t look at their boarders as burdens, nor do they find them tiring or painful. They look at their boarders as exactly that – boarders. Guests. Members of the family. There’s no back story, no medical diagnosis, no therapy. Instead they offer acceptance. Acceptance of their quirks, ticks and outbursts, free of judgement and more importantly, free of any desire or pressure to change them.

Learning to Accept

Acceptance is not something that comes easily to us. We want to fix problems. We want to find solutions. We want our loved ones to heal, be cured, and live good, happy lives. Who wouldn’t want that for their family and friends?

Murray suffers from severe anxiety, but I hadn’t been able to accept that. I kept looking at him and his nonstop barking as an annoying problem that needed to be fixed, and I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that when anxious or scared (which is often), Murray is going to bark.

Because in spite of all of my work this month, in spite of my efforts to create environments that reduce stress, whether it be offering special treats the car, shielding him from little kids while out on walks, showering him with praise and attention when he is quiet, or holding him when people visit, the anxiety remains. The barking continues.

The good news is, some of my other efforts are paying off. Murray is walking with a little more fluidity, thanks to an improved diet of homemade proteins, vegetables, fats and broth. He seems to be enjoying the clicker training and the learning of basic commands. He’s interacting and playing with other dogs (in a controlled environment) and tagging along with me on more outings and errands. He’s getting tons of hugs, belly rubs and attention. And I’ve changed because I’ve embraced acceptance.

This doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop working on him. Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation. I will always keep looking for solutions because I believe I can continue to improve his quality of life. The difference is that now, I can approach this process with less frustration and negativity, and hope that slowly, over time, his anxiety will lessen… and with it the barking.